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Colin Low, shown here shooting in Moscow for his In the Labyrinth project in 1967, earned two Oscar nominations as producer, and worked on another six Oscar-nominated films, including two that he co-directed. (Courtesy of the National Film Board)
Colin Low, shown here shooting in Moscow for his In the Labyrinth project in 1967, earned two Oscar nominations as producer, and worked on another six Oscar-nominated films, including two that he co-directed. (Courtesy of the National Film Board)

OBITUARY

Colin Low: A gentleman genius of documentary cinema Add to ...

As a child growing up in southwest Alberta in the 1930s, Colin Low rode to school on horseback and liked to draw pictures of horses. A teacher who saw his budding talent introduced him to the work of Renaissance artist and inventor Leonardo da Vinci.

In his final, autobiographical film, Moving Pictures (2000), Mr. Low recalled that experience as the beginning of his voyage of artistic exploration and discovery. In many ways, the director became Canada’s own Renaissance man of film: a graphic artist, animator, documentarian and administrator who worked on more than 200 productions over six decades.

Mr. Low earned two Oscar nominations as producer, for Universe (1960) and My Financial Career (1962), and worked on another six Oscar-nominated films, including two that he co-directed, The Romance of Transportation in Canada (1952) and City of Gold (1957). As a technical innovator, his influence extended to Stanley Kubrick and Ken Burns and the development of IMAX film. At the same time, he excelled at the kind of informative, intimate documentaries of ordinary people’s lives for which the National Film Board became world famous.

Mr. Low, who died on Feb. 24 at the age of 89, was regarded as a gentleman genius and spiritual father figure among Canadian documentary filmmakers.

“Colin Low’s life and career reveal him to be a curious mixture of artist and civil servant,” says Marc Glassman, who teaches documentary history at Toronto’s Ryerson University. “Trained as a draftsman and first brought to the National Film Board to work under Norman McLaren and his animation department, Mr. Low could have easily pursued a life as an animator and filmmaker. But whenever the NFB asked him to divert his efforts into production and administration – running the animation department in the 1950s and the board’s regional productions in the 1970s – he did so without hesitation.”

Colin Archibald Low was born in Cardston, Alta., in 1926, to Gerald (Ged) and Marion Low, ranchers who were members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The town, which was also the birthplace of the film star Fay Wray, borders on the Kainai Nation (Blood Tribe) Indian Reservation, which became a subject of two of Mr. Low’s later films. Mr. Low studied at the Banff School of Fine Arts and later at the Calgary Institute of Technology (now known as the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology). A teacher encouraged him to send a portfolio of his work to the National Film Board, where he was accepted as a summer student in 1945.

Robert Verrall, a friend and collaborator who met Mr. Low at the NFB that summer, described Mr. Low as “a natural leader, always full of ideas, and a wonderful colleague.”

When Mr. Verrall returned to Toronto to finish art school, Mr. Low stayed on at the film board. Around this time, Mr. Low met Eugénie (Jean) St. Germain, in Montreal. The couple married in 1947.

Later, after a year of travelling to study animation systems in Europe, he returned as supervisor of the animation division, overseeing a series of historically significant films.

Along with animator Wolf Koenig, Mr. Low and Mr. Verrall created the 1952 humorous short film The Romance of Transportation in Canada, which won the Palme d’Or in Cannes and was the first Canadian animated short nominated for an Oscar.

During a period of homesickness, Mr. Low returned to Alberta with Mr. Koenig to make Corral (1954), a poetic study of a cowboy training a wild mustang. With no narration, it broke with the film board’s tradition established by its founder, John Grierson. The film won a documentary prize at the Venice Film Festival.

City of Gold (1957), a film about Dawson City, combined live action footage with animation camera techniques of panning and zooming in on photographic images, an approach that has since been called “the Ken Burns effect” after American documentarian Ken Burns, who has acknowledged City of Gold as his inspiration.

Robert Verrall says that when Mr. Low was offered a raise for his accomplishments, he told his boss he’d rather be rewarded with more creative freedom. “What he had in mind,” Mr. Verrall said, “was the film Universe.

The movie, which Mr. Low co-directed with Roman Kroitor, used 3-D models, a motorized pen and an in-house mathematician to set new standards for realistic animated motion. Upon its release in 1960, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration ordered 300 copies.

Later, when Stanley Kubrick began research for his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, he was inspired by the film. According to biographer Vincent Lobrutto: “As the film unspooled, Kubrick watched the screen with rapt attention while a panorama of the galaxies swirled by, achieving the standard of dynamic visionary realism that he was looking for. These images were not flawed by the shoddy matte work, obvious animation and poor miniatures typically found in science fiction films. Universe proved that the camera could be a telescope to the heavens. As the credits rolled, Kubrick studied the names of the magicians who created the images: Colin Low, Sidney Goldsmith, and Wally Gentleman.”

Mr. Gentleman, a special effects artist, went to work briefly with Mr. Kubrick, and Canadian actor Douglas Rain, who had narrated Universe, served as the voice of the computer HAL 9000 in Mr. Kubrick’s film. Mr. Low was invited to design special effects for 2001, but declined, already deeply involved with his own ambitious project: In the Labyrinth, the NFB’s showcase film for Expo 67, in Montreal.

Directed by Mr. Low, Mr. Kroitor and Hugh O’Connor, this was a groundbreaking multi-screen media installation using 35mm and 70mm film projected simultaneously across five screens. The experiments they did laid the groundwork for IMAX. Mr. Kroitor left the NFB to co-found Multi-Screen Corporation, which became IMAX Corp. Mr. Low stayed with the NFB, though he subsequently co-directed the first full-colour IMAX 3-D film, Transitions, for Expo 86, in Vancouver, and Momentum, the first 48-frames-per-second IMAX HD film, for the Seville world’s fair in 1992.

In the summer of 1967, when crowds were lining up for hours to experience Labrynth, an exhausted Mr. Low had moved on to a very different kind of project in an impoverished fishing community on Fogo Island, off the northeast coast of Newfoundland. The work was part of the NFB’s fledgling Challenge for Change program, aimed at using film and other media to foster social progress. Mr. Low made 27 Fogo films in all, in which the community was allowed to make editing choices. Through the conversations the films provoked, the community developed a local fishing co-op which allowed the residents to continue to subsist on the island.

Later in his life, Mr. Low would still talk about the Fogo Island films with pride, according to Mr. Verrall. “He took me there in the mid-1970s,” he said, “and I could see, by the warmth of the reception, that he had become a hero there.”

In the 1970s, Mr. Low took on the managment task of setting up new regional offices across the country for the NFB, giving him a direct link to a generation of younger filmmakers. Michelle van Beusekom, the NFB’s current director of English-language programming, says the regional studios boosted the careers of such filmmakers as Anne Wheeler and two-time Oscar-nominated animator Cordell Barker, while Mr. Low’s support of a native filmmaking unit helped the careers of Gil Cardinal and Alanis Obomsawin. Mr. Low’s influence continues in two forthcoming NFB projects that were inspired by his work: Hand.Line.Cod, a new film from Fogo Island about the revival of a gourmet-friendly cod-fishing technique, from director Justin Simms, and Scott Parker’s The Grasslands Project.

Among the young staff members Mr. Low hired to work at the film board was Toronto director Peter Raymont, who joined the NFB out of university in 1971. Since then, he has produced more than 100 documentaries and television shows, including Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Romeo Dallaire (2005).

“[Colin Low] was a visionary,” Mr. Raymont says, “but he didn’t have his head in the clouds. He knew how to get things done.”

All three of Mr. Low’s sons, Stephen, Ben and Alex, followed their father’s foosteps in the film business. Stephen, who worked at the NFB before becoming a leading IMAX director (Titanica, Mark Twain's America in 3D ), says his father’s example was one of restless curiosity and love of adventure.

“He took us everywhere. When we flew, he talked us into the cockpit. When we took the train, we rode whenever possible in the engine. We swam with diving masks in mountain rivers in Alberta. We went on four-day cattle drives and slept under the stars. … Those adventures became my films: beavers in mountain rivers, a steam train across Canada, the building of an airliner, chemosynthetic life in the deep ocean, shipwrecks and on and on. All because our Dad, Mom and family showed us the world was an incredible, wonderful place and life was all about exploring, studying and feeling it.”

Mr. Low, who was invested in the Order of Canada in 1996, had little interest in filmed drama and wouldn’t bother watching the Academy Awards – even when one of his films was nominated. He had no interest in working in Hollywood, despite frequent offers, insisting that he couldn’t stand Los Angeles.

“But it was more than that,” Stephen Low says. “He loved working with real people – scientists, cowboys, native peoples, fishermen – and he loved living and working in their worlds.”

Stephen Low recalls a dinner guest who kept saying: “‘You’ve got to write a book, Colin, so you can tell all your wonderful stories!’ Dad said something like, ‘What do you think I’ve been doing all these years?’”

Mr. Low leaves his wife; three sons, who all work in the film business; and four granddaughters. He was predeceased by his brother, Garth Low.

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